“I made this decision because of the city of Denver, Nuggets fans and my teammates. I tasted what it was like to win in this great city, and I’ve never been more focused to recapture that feeling.” Those are Wilson Chandler’s words, unprovoked. He wrote that in an open letter to the city back in 2015. With change swirling around the team for the past several season, Wilson was staying put for the city.. Three years later, He’s headed to the Philadelphia 76ers with almost nothing coming back to the Nuggets in return.
When the Denver Nuggets traded Chandler and some minor draft compensation for virtually nothing in return it put the proof in the pudding as to just how far apart the team and player had grown. Wilson played the 4th most minutes on the team last season while starting seventy-one games, he’s still got quite a bit left in the tank and post all-star break he looked very solid. His $12+ million dollar salary is probably an overpay, but its not onerous and it expires after this season. Yet, the Nuggets were unable to secure any compensation for him and were willing to let him go, for nothing. Their longest tenured player, the last remnant of the Carmelo Anthony trade, the last player contributing to the rotation from the George Karl era, gone; for peanuts. How did it come to this point?
Chandler was sort of the unheralded piece of the Melo trade. Everyone believed Danilo Gallinari to be the key piece, everyone knew Masai Ujiri insisted on Timofey Mozgov (why he insisted no one knew), everyone knew Raymond Felton was having a great season and finally looking like he would live up to the promise of being a national champion out of North Carolina. No one really knew what to think about Chandler. Wilson was a late 1st rounder who blossomed a season later when Gallinari was injured but he almost felt like a throw in to the deal. Nonetheless, when he came to Denver he made an immediate impact. He started right out of the gate for coach Karl and rewarded him by scoring in double figures in 11 of the first 13 games after the trade. Wilson waned down the stretch though, perhaps a result of acclimating to the altitude, and failed to score in double figures even once in the Nuggets only series the playoffs.
The following season the NBA headed into a lockout and Wilson headed to China. If you haven’t read his piece about his time in China, you need to do it. Chandler will always be remembered as a thinker by those who interacted him. It was clear that he recognizes there is far more to the world than the game of basketball and in his piece he talks about how China helped shape his mentality. Stateside, there was legitimate fear that the entire 2011-2012 season was going to be lost so many players, including Chandler, were willing to play overseas in a place like China were there were no buyouts allowed before the Chinese season ended. When the NBA and the NBAPA came to an agreement and got an ultra quick, compressed season started at Christmas, Chandler was still playing for the Zhejiang Lions. Wilson noted on his time overseas how much the players worked, how there was no offseason and how he had to negotiate a rest day in his contract. When the Chinese season ended in March he returned to basketball in Denver on a new 5 year contract. He played 8 games before a labral tear in his left hip ended his season.
As was the case with Kenyon Martin and Nene during the 2000s, Chandler and Gallinari never seemed to be able to stay healthy at the same time and ultimately will leave the fans wondering what if? Shortly after Wilson got 100% back from hip surgery, Gallo went down with his infamous knee injury. With the Nuggets headed towards their best season ever they leaned heavily on Chandler to fill Gallo’s shoes. Ultimately Denver was unable to overcome the Golden State Warriors coming out party. Wilson did the best he could and to his credit he scored in double figures in all but one game in the playoffs that season, but that series and his 35% shooting from the field showed that relying on Chandler to be your go to scorer on offense was a large ask.
After that season the Nuggets fired Karl and Ujiri left for the Toronto Raptors. The Nuggets went through a plethora of change but Chandler remained one of the few constants throughout the turmoil. He played in 150 games for Denver over the next two seasons and started 130 of them. With one year left on his deal, Chandler signed a 4 year extension with the team despite the fact that the Nuggets had just hired Michael Malone who would be Chandler’s fifth head coach in six seasons (sixth coach if you count China). With a fanbase who had been spurned by star players and GMs, Chandler won their hearts by writing his famous letter to the city. For the first time in what felt like forever (and sort of was), Chandler made Nuggets fans feel wanted. With him locked up on a four year $46 million contract and Gallo re-signed on a two year $34 million extension the Nuggets were invested in their wings to lead a new era of young talent in Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic and Emmanuel Mudiay. During the following preseason though Chandler suffered a labral tear in his right hip and missed the entire 2015-2016 season.
Looking at Wilson’s time in the rear view, it seems like that lost season is what ultimately led to his trade yesterday. By the time Chandler was fully back, Denver had discovered Jokic ball, Harris was blossoming and the newest addition, Jamal Murray, was getting more and more minutes. The Nuggets had clearly started to make a shift to what was next and Chandler was a remnant from an era that was quickly becoming bygone. With the NBA evolving as well, Malone struggled to find a consistent rotation with his forwards, a fact that was not lost on Chandler or his twitter account. The Nuggets continued to lean more and more on their young core which meant taking the lumps, and losses, that come with it. One can imagine Wilson’s frustration as the prime of his career was being spent in a rebuild and while his frustration never fully boiled over, there were deleted tweets here and off the record statements there that seemed to indicate he was growing unhappy with the organization. There was also a question of effectiveness at times on the court as well as Chandler became more and more inconsistent as the games went on. In some games you could say at best he looked a step slower, that the two hip surgeries had caught up with him. At worst you could say that he looked disinterested and that he was more going through the motions than anything.
His trade to the 76ers gives a fresh start to all parties involved. The Nuggets save $50 million in salaries and tax penalties, something that they had to do. Wilson will get a chance to play for a playoff team in the east and make a real contribution. He’ll be playing for will likely be the last contract of his career so there should be little doubt that he’ll be motivated in Philly. Meanwhile, though his time in Denver perhaps ended on a sour note, his great moments shouldn’t be forgotten either. Chandler served as Denver’s Swiss army knife for six and a half seasons, sometimes filling the role of scorer, other times as defensive stopper and rebounder. His game saving block on Andrew Wiggins will always stand out when I think of Wilson on the court.
However, ultimately the thing that everyone who got to talk with Chandler will remember was his world perspective and how he lived his life differently. Chandler looked at the world in a different way than most people. When he got back from China he said:
I tell my friends and family I love them more often. I eat at new restaurants, try new experiences, go outside of my comfort zone. There are a lot of people that would love to do what I’m doing. I can’t take this life for granted.
He really lived up to that and I imagine will continue to live up to that throughout his life. For the Nuggets, they’ll now turn to freshly re-signed Will Barton and even more of their young core to fill Chandler’s shoes, fully embracing the next era of Denver basketball. Best of luck Ill Will and keep living life to its fullest. Thanks for riding through the storm with us.